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Read This Before Posting

I was listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast the other day when he equated the word “content” to corporate detritus that clogs up the Internet and bombards people with useless information. I don’t think you can make a blanket statement and say that anything deemed “content” is rubbish, but I do agree that there is a glut of content on the Internet that lacks substance.  It is also becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish “sponsored content” from content that is published without strings attached.

For example, a story that runs on WSJ.com about the virtues of an organic diet could be defined as content, although a journalist most likely synthesized the information to present an objective sequence of thoughts about this particular subject. Juxtapose a WSJ.com story with a sponsored blog post on the Huffington Post about the merits of an organic diet, and the word “content” takes on new meaning.

But is there truly a difference between paid content and content that isn’t sponsored?

The unsponsored content found in mainstream media and trade publications has often been influenced by the very advertisers (or sponsors) and subscribers that pay for the content to be produced in the first place.  And yet, I have to agree with Maron that the word “content” is beginning to smack of something manufactured, manipulated, and ultimately, unworthy of a read.

At PondelWilkinson, we are often in a position to create content, whether it is writing a press release, posting an image on a blog, or publishing a tweet. We strive to ensure that the content we create is substantive; to do that, we think obsessively about every single detail, including word choice, the audience, and the best way to deliver the content.

To help encourage the publishing of quality content, following is a list of items to consider before hitting “post.”

  • Know your audience. The best way to ensure your content is connecting with its intended audience is to know who you are targeting.
  • Write with intention. Writing a blog post with a goal in mind, a thesis to prove, a point of view to express will help ensure the content resonates with readers.
  • Pay attention to detail. Word choice, grammar and focus matter when asking someone to read something, even if it is 140 characters or less.
  • Provoke interest. Let’s face it, anyone can write or publish something on the web. Ask yourself if what you are writing is provocative or original.
  • Review analytics. Almost anything published online leaves a footprint. Understanding what analytics matter and whether you are hitting the right target audience will help you know if your content is worthwhile.

– Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com

The Public Relations of Lobbying

Influence is the common denominator between public relations and lobbying. One influences opinion, and the other, government.

While these disciplines sometimes work in tandem, they are separate and distinct. In New York, however, that may not be the case. The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) earlier this year issued an advisory opinion that expands the definition of lobbying to include aspects of public relations.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

The lobby of the House of Commons. Painting 1886 by Liborio Prosperi.

Whoa nelly, says the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the nation’s largest and foremost membership organization for public relations and communication professionals, which blasted JCOPE in a statement, saying the opinion “will lead to more confusion as to what lobbying is, circumvention based on the ambiguous standards articulated, and less trust in government.”

While the current advisory opinion is being challenged in court, JCOPE’s new interpretation of the New York State Lobbying Act, ambiguous as it may be, says consultants engaged in “direct” or “grass roots” lobbying on behalf of a client must comply. Believe it or not, this includes traditional PR tactics, such as message development, drafting press releases and contacting media.

The definition of a lobbyist usually revolves around compensation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are more than 50 versions of lobbying laws in states and territories,  ranging from definitions of lobbyists to payment thresholds for compensation or reimbursements.  New York’s current threshold is $5K annually.

Excluding media was probably a good “PR play” by JCOPE, no pun intended. Just think of how top-tier outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and hundreds of others would react if they had to register as “lobbyists?” It also would be interesting to learn how a reporter would feel if he or she was included in a PR firm’s “disclosure” for its “lobbying” activities.

The reality is media outlets frequently meet with public officials. But should a person who simply set up a meeting between a client and an editorial board qualify as a lobbyist? Common sense says no. The difference is that editorial boards have their own guidelines and choose what they cover or report on. Lobbyists, on the other hand, go directly to the source to sway opinion.

PR practitioners basically are connecting the dots, middlemen so to speak. Aside from helping point stakeholders to pertinent information, or connecting people with similar or disparate points of view, we help clients define messages and better articulate their narratives. But it’s always the client’s message, never that of a PR firm.

– George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com

Walk Down the Hall before Sending that Email

It’s no secret that the ability to write well, which typically equates to the ability to think well, is a fundamental skillset that goes a long way in many businesses and professions, certainly ours, whether the public relations or investor relations side of our practice.

The University of Chicago, however, revealed in a recent study, that no matter how well and in which medium writing is deployed—via email or text message, in a legal brief, or in our world, a press release—verbal communication is a far more powerful tool than the proverbial pen.

The study conducted by UCHI Professors Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder concluded that the same information that could be conveyed verbally comes off sounding less intelligent and convincing in writing, and that picking up the phone or walking down the hall to a colleague’s office, rather than sending an email, virtually always will be more effective.

The study, “The Sound of Intellect,” revealed that voice inflection and other vocal cues show that humans are “alive inside, thoughtful, active and (written) text strips that out.”

Even if precisely the same words that can be delivered verbally—in person, in a voice message or by video—are put into written form, the study showed that the verbal medium won hands down.

None of this means emailing and text messaging are going away. And as far as skillsets are concerned, solid writing still equates to sound thinking and still reigns supreme at firms such as ours. But the study does confirm that humanity is the real winner, and if there is a choice, perhaps think twice before pressing the send button.

-Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com

Relate to the Public

photo2.JPG

 
Sometimes in order to practice public relations, you actually have to relate to the public. Today our firm visited the Daybreak Day Center, a place that provides food, shelter, clothing and showers for mentally ill homeless women.  We made lunch as a team for more than 20 women, had conversations with staff and volunteers, and shared a meal with some of the most courageous people we’ve ever met.
 
 

In Defense of ‘Flaks’

Mark Cuban

Mark Cuban (Photo credit: wikipedia.com)

Here’s what it said: “Never hire a PR firm.” You can certainly understand my bemusement when reading these words.Entrepreneur Magazine recently published “Mark Cuban’s 12 Rules for Startups.”  Many of the rules provide a common sense approach to starting a new business.  But the eleventh rule made me woozy.
 
Cuban qualified this rule by saying that PR folks are calling and emailing reporters and editors when, in fact, the founders of companies should be calling and emailing the same reporters and editors “who will welcome hearing from (them) instead of some PR flak.”  Gosh, that’s harsh.  I mean, calling PR folks “flaks” is the equivalent of calling a fresh piece of rye bread a “crouton.”
 
Indeed, Cuban is talking about startups and not established companies, and hiring a PR firm isn’t always a top priority when eating and keeping the lights on are hard enough.  But if you cannot afford to hire a PR firm, you should probably ask a flak friend for some pro bono advice before banishing their firms altogether.
 
Here are my top six reasons why:
 

  1. First impressions matter.  If you send a lackluster pitch or sloppily written email to any self-respecting reporter or editor, it’s going to be tough getting their attention.
     

  2. It takes a lot of time and energy to cultivate media sources, so determine whether you have extra time to contact editors and reporters with punchy and seductive things to say.
     

  3. Crafting your own messaging (basically how a company describes itself to the public) is about as simple as staring at yourself in the mirror and describing what you see.
     

  4. It’s not easy communicating a calm and cohesive message to employees, investors, customers and others who rely on your services when you find yourself in the midst of a crisis.  That’s when PR pros really come in handy.
     

  5. The number of professional reporters and editors is shrinking due to consolidation in the media industry.  That means startups and established companies alike are responsible for generating their own buzz, and at the very least, communicating with important constituencies.   That’s what PR firms do.
     

  6. And finally, always question someone who criticizes the value of a PR firm when they themselves are billionaires, not to mention shameless self-promoters.  From the Washington Post:  “He (Cuban) is on television or the radio marveling at his charmed existence … ‘When I die, I want to come back as me,’ he likes to say…”  Unfortunately, we’re not all Mark Cuban.

 

Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com
 
 

The Real Deal on Public Relations

New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott may finally have given the public
relations industry some needed street cred. His November 20th bylined article, “Redefining Public Relations in the Age of Social Media,” discussed why the Public Relations Society of America has embarked on its own campaign to change the definition of “public relations.”
 
This blogger over the years has had several conversations with Stuart about the importance of public relations (PR) long before this recent column, prompting the need for more coverage on the industry since it has become more integral to the marketing efforts of brands and organizations.
 
The existing definition, “public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other,” has been around for nearly 30 years.  You’d be surprised at a few of the suggested changes being floated around, some worse than others.
 
Quite frankly, nothing has changed.  Public relations still helps organizations “talk” to their constituencies.  The only real change is the way these organizations communicate with key audiences since the rise of the Internet.  Social media is just a new vehicle or another medium, whether it’s a brand interacting with consumers, a business-to-business organization talking with customers or even a publicly traded company communicating with investors.
 
All this chatter about a definition change ironically is good publicity for public relations, which has gotten a bad rap now and then.  The word “spin” has a negative connation and often is incorrectly used to help explain PR, which is only a small component of the broader discipline, although there may be no denying some truth to the negative sentiment.
 
Explaining public relations to those that don’t really understand it always has been a challenge, whether educating a family member or even a new business prospect. It’s very complicated to say the least and probably more art than science, not to mention nerve-racking. Coincidentally, public relations continually ranks high in surveys about the most stressful careers.
 
One crude yet effective way to explain public relations is to compare it to advertising.  Advertising is an organization talking about itself and public relations is someone else talking about that organization.  A client once said that people will remember an article in print or online but very rarely recall the ad next to it.
 
Selling PR to prospective clients may be a little easier as more people engage in the discussion about a definition change. The reality however is that people are talking about PR and for the public relations industry that’s a job well done.

 

George Medici, gmedici@pondel.com
 
 

Wilkinson Scholarship Winner

 
 
Anna Gaidenko, a first year graduate student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, has been awarded the 2011-2012 annual Wilkinson Scholarship Award.

 
Gadeinko is working toward a master’s degree in strategic public relations, focusing on the global market.  She intends to bridge her interest and experience in both the international arena and communication field post-graduation.  Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Gaidenko lived in Cleveland before moving to Miami and completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in international studies and criminology at the University of Miami. Prior to applying to USC, she taught English in the Czech Republic, travelling the surrounding regions and doing freelance writing, which led her to discover public relations as a profession.
 
The Wilkinson scholarship is awarded annually in memory of Cecilia A. Wilkinson, an active USC alum and a principal of PondelWilkinson, who passed away in 2007.
 
The video above is Gaidenko’s take on how social media can enhance public relations.
 
 

Don’t Get Preoccupied

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street on November 2, 2011 (Photo Credit: Mario Tama, Getty Images)

The Occupy Wall Street movement is less than two months old, and yet it feels like the story has been around for decades.  I’m not convinced it’s a result of the Occupiers’ public relations prowess.  It’s probably more of a function of the archetypal roots of the story – media have been covering protests ever since the dawn of newsprint.  And think about the ingredients that comprise this protest story.  There’s emotion, civil disobedience, and plenty of cause, especially with a staggering unemployment rate and an allegedly clear and present culprit: Wall Street.
 
But the future of the Occupy movement is unknown, and even though big banks are the targets du jour, who’s next in line and what are the Occupiers’ long-term goals?  It appears the movement is in the midst of a public relations crisis, and unless the collective consciousness can think of something quickly, the cold snap of winter is going to shut this protest down.
 
War, civil rights and genocide all present perfectly valid theses for inciting protest.  There is a means to an end, and even if the end is not near, the path to salvation is clear.  But the Occupy movement has no such endpoint.  All of the ingredients are present, with the exception of a well-articulated goal.  Hey, hey, the protesters might say, the movement is evolving organically because that’s what the people want.  But when was the last time you tried to accomplish something without knowing what exactly you were trying to accomplish?
 
So here’s some public relations advice to keep the protest alive and media engaged:
 

  • Set some realistic goals that Occupiers and non-Occupiers can understand and rally around to stay motivated;
     

  • Assemble a dream team in Washington, i.e. lobbyists, politicians, union leaders, financial executives, etc … and create an action plan that everyone running in the 2012 election will have to address and promise to review if elected;
     

  • Keep the messaging consistent across the country.  Yes, there are a lot of things people are angry about, but staying focused on specific topics will ensure a more cohesive and powerful message;
     

  • Know your allies and do whatever is possible and practical to support them;
     

  • Do not generalize or stereotype when attacking a target.  Be specific.  Not everyone on Wall Street or who works for a big bank is an enemy.  The movement has already alienated itself from powerful people who can help accomplish the very change the Occupiers are (perhaps) seeking.

 

Evan Pondel, epondel@pondel.com
 
 

Ripe for Review

Cantaloupe

Ripe for Review (Photo Credit: Flickr, )

A few weeks ago, a cantaloupe farm from Southern Colorado became the center of attention, but not the kind of attention a small organization would opt for. A listeria outbreak linked to the farm caused 72 illnesses and 13 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This outbreak has been deemed the deadliest in the United States in more than a decade.
 
Disasters such as these serve as important reminders to make sure crisis communications plans are ready to go. Following are some ideas to keep top of mind when starting or reviewing that plan:
 

  • Create a messaging platform – A number of important points should be put together to combat any questions brought on by the media and any customers, such as addressing the issue at hand, explaining what the company is doing to settle the issue and move forward in a positive direction, etc.
     

  • Provide constant updates on new information – As more information is gathered and received, every bit should be readily available and shared with the public.  
     

  • If needed, gather third party support – If there are holes in the information for the crisis, hire additional support, such as investigators. Do everything you can to find out all of the little details so there are no missing pieces to the puzzle.
     

  • Gather support from the industry – If this is an issue comparable to the cantaloupe saga, it will affect other players in the industry. Communicate with other companies in similar spaces who can help communicate information about the issue as well.
     

  • Hire a communications firm with experience in crises – There are many firms that focus extensively on crisis management and can help companies mitigate the damaging effects of a crisis.

 

PondelWilkinson, investor@pondel.com
 
 

Is There a (Spin) Doctor in the House?

When the Securities and Exchange Commission recently charged three former senior executives of IndyMac Bancorp with securities fraud for “misleading investors,” two fundamental questions immediately arose in investor relations and strategic public relations circles:  Did they have professional IR/PR counsel when communicating with investors?
 
Contrary to popular and misguided belief, the professional practice of investor and strategic public relations isn’t about painting rosy pictures, making things appear better than they really are, or coloring fact.  Rather, best-practice counsel condones transparency, clarity, and timely, factual representation of corporate news–good or bad.
 
The corporate executives at IndyMac are accused of making false and misleading disclosures about their company at a time when its financial condition was rapidly deteriorating.  Perhaps in time, we’ll learn if they were counseled by IR/PR pros or not.
 
As Lorin L. Reisner, deputy director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, said in a statement, “Truthful and accurate disclosure to investors is particularly critical during a time of crisis, and the federal securities laws do not become optional when the news is negative.”
 
We and our fellow professional communications brethren couldn’t agree more with Reisner.  These IndyMac Bancorp officers now need legal representation.
 
Ironically, communications counsel is crucial more than ever, since the fight will continue in the court of public opinion, as the executives look to prove their innocence and reestablish their careers.
 
To many outsiders, this could sound like a job for a (spin) doctor.  The truth is that IR and PR pros, many of whom– yours truly included–began their careers as journalists, abhor the notion of spin, including the word itself.    There is no cure-all medicine for managing a crisis.  Only solid thinking and communications skills will win the day; certainly not a job for a doctor of spin.

 

Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com